- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2000

Most Americans believe the Bible is more factual than newspapers not necessarily much of an endorsement but find their daily newspapers far easier to read.

This ambivalence toward the ancient Scripture, confirmed in a recent survey, suggests Americans are more willing to enter the complex Bible world if they find it packaged palatably and easy to grasp, scholars and publishers say.

"For years, Gallup polls have found that huge majorities believe the Bible to be God's word, but a far smaller segment read it regularly," says Jeff Sheler, author of "Is the Bible True?"

When Americans say they believe in the Bible, Mr. Sheler says, "Are they merely reflecting a cultural assumption or a personal experience, having read it or applied it to their lives?"

Whether Americans are truly Bible-literate in a era of slipshod literacy standards, more than eight in 10 U.S. adults told the survey that the Bible's ancient stories speak to today and can solve "most or all" of life's problems.

The independent market survey of 1,000 representative U.S. adults was commissioned by Zondervan, the world's largest publisher of Bibles. It was released for National Bible Week ending Nov. 26, but also shows the publisher's ear for what Americans want in a Bible.

Most adults trust that the Bible got "its facts straight" more than newspapers or even history books. But two-thirds find a supermarket tabloid easier reading. The survey also found:

• The hardest part of the Bible "to read and understand" is the creation account in Genesis.

• Adults most often say the Bible's great value is in teaching children right and wrong, with David and Goliath the most memorable story and the Good Samaritan the best for moral instruction.

• Eighty percent agree that Bible language can be "confusing," and welcome modern translation. Most say that different parts of the Bible speak to different people and needs and thus approve of specialty Bible materials.

For the past decade, the story in Bible publishing has been customized versions aimed at different ages, sexes, ethnic groups, professions and theological persuasions.

One growing format is the Bible anthology, such as Tyndale House's "The One Year Bible." It covers the entire Bible by giving excerpts from the Old and New Testaments, Psalms and Proverbs each day.

Presidential candidate George W. Bush reads this version, and friends say the pithy Proverbs have guided his decisions.

In 1999, Aug. 20 was the day after the toughest grilling by reporters on rumors of Mr. Bush's cocaine use. "The One Year Bible" reading that day included Proverbs 21:23: "If you keep your mouth shut, you will stay out of trouble." Mr. Bush did so and the story faded.

When the Florida recount battle began after Election Day, "The One Year Bible" text for Nov. 8 was Proverbs 27:10: "Never abandon a friend either yours or your father's. Then in your time of need, you won't have to ask relatives for assistance."

That day Mr. Bush asked James A. Baker III secretary of state in his father's administration to lead the Florida fight.

Zondervan, which publishes the easy-to-read New International Version (NIV), markets Bibles in the categories of study, devotional, youth, children, specialty and gift. Its "NIrV" kids Bible reads at a third-grade level. A teen version includes 500 questions and answers.

The finding that Americans tend to say "no single Bible can meet everyone's needs" is good news for publishing but also reflects the Christian Bible's structure.

"The Bible is not a book, it's a library," Mr. Sheler says. Because it features poetry, genealogy, prophecy, legal codes, parables, proverbs, theology and history, "You can't read one portion the same as another," he says.

Mr. Sheler's book, called one of 1999's best by Christianity Today, has the tone of a journalist investigating what current textual and archaeological research says of Bible factuality.

"Those parts that present themselves as history, when put under critical study, show themselves to be remarkably reliable," Mr. Sheler says, referring to accounts of the Israelites, the life of Christ and the early church.

"The Genesis story would be hard to understand for Americans who are sophisticated and familiar with science," he says. But it's an example of what believing scholars call a narrative with a theological or moral truth, not a scientific or historic description.

Belief that the Bible is "literally true" has dropped from 65 percent of U.S. adults to 33 percent over 40 years, Gallup polls report. But belief in its divine "inspiration and authority" stays more than 80 percent.

"There is a conflict in the minds of lots of people about just what the Bible is," Mr. Sheler says. "Unfortunately, they often reduce it to 'either-or.' It's either all true in every detail or it's a [nonfactual] faith document."

Either way, a third of respondents to the Zondervan poll say they "feel comfortable and safe" when a Bible is around, and 20 percent see someone holding a Bible as a "good person."

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